Nobel laureate Orhan Pamuk manages a staggering feat of character craft in The Museum Of Innocence, so thoroughly realizing what it’s like inside his protagonist’s claustrophobic head that when the story abruptly steps out of this perspective near the end, it’s like emerging from a dank cellar into the fresh air. And while Pamuk’s command of voice is peerless, it becomes so overpowering here that it overwhelms all the book’s other charms.
Imagine hanging out with a friend who simply cannot get over the girlfriend who left him. Now imagine that you can’t speak as he drones on for more than 500 pages. That’s what reading The Museum Of Innocence is like. Kemal is a promising, rich young businessman who tears his life asunder by sleeping with his 18-year-old cousin, Füsun. His desire for her cripples his ability to function normally in society. Pamuk utterly captures Kemal’s character and situation, but frustratingly, he also brings across the ways Kemal’s obsession keeps him from understanding anyone else in his orbit.
Pamuk’s writing is often dazzling. At the engagement party of Kemal and his fiancée, Sibil, Pamuk only gradually clues us in to how Kemal must appear from the outside, as he tries to drink his desire for Füsun away. In this sequence and a few others, Pamuk captures the details that slide into Kemal’s peripheral vision while he focuses intently on possessing the one he loves, like the fact that Istanbul is full of poor people, too. Pamuk’s powers of description are also unparalleled, as when he describes the way Sibil tries to jar Kemal from his stupor through a kind of desperate compassion and hunger.
But The Museum Of Innocence ultimately can’t compete with Pamuk’s Snow—one of the best books of the decade—because Pamuk himself gets bogged down in a portion of the story that lasts nearly half the novel. Kemal, now a societal outcast, spends night after night visiting Füsun and her family, carrying on an arid love affair that never goes anywhere. It becomes maddening to be trapped inside this man’s head, forced to share his obsessions and desires. It’s obvious that Pamuk intends this, but it doesn’t make the experience any more pleasant.
Pamuk’s best work often has this quality of tunnel vision, of people focused on one thing, and consequently missing what’s going on in their country and with their friends. But he balances that out with an occasional sense of clarity or flash of insight. Here, the three moments designed to show readers just how thoroughly Kemal has fallen arrive too late and pass by too quickly.
By the time Kemal is turning a variety of objects he’s pilfered from Füsun into the titular museum, Pamuk wants to evoke a sense of overwhelming longing and sadness at squandered potential. But because Kemal lacks any self-awareness, he mostly ends up evoking irritation. The Museum Of Innocence is worth reading just for the quality of the writing, but it ends up resembling the airless, stuffy world of, well, a museum.